Second only to the legendary Land Cruiser, the 4Runner has been the staple of Toyota's SUV lineup. It has undergone several facelifts and has been given numerous improvements in its near 20-year existence, but none of the evolutionary steps that the 4Runner took in the past can compare to the ground-up makeover that was done. The vehicle that now bears this badge is all new for 2003, and is bigger, badder, and stronger than ever.

The most visually obvious difference between this 4Runner and previous models is the styling. While there is absolutely no question that the 4Runner looks very different for 2003, the judges were far from unanimous when it came to scoring points on the exterior design: some disliked the new rear end, describing it with words that were too harsh to print, some liked the lines of the new vehicle, and others loved the look as soon as they saw it. One thing the judges did agree on was that this SUV looks a lot like its bigger brother, the Sequoia.

Another commonality with the larger SUV is the engine that our 4Runner came with - a 4.7L DOHC V-8, with 235 hp and 320 lb-ft of torque. This engine is optional in 4Runner, marking the first time V-8 power has been made available in this vehicle. The 4Runner uses a five-speed ECT automatic transmission, and has safety features that include power four-wheel disc brakes, four-wheel ABS with Electronic Brakeforce Distribution, Vehicle Stability Control, traction control, and dual-stage airbags.

The changes in this sport utility do not hinder its trail capability. Our 4Runner came with full-time four-wheel drive, a Torsen locking center differential, downhill assist control, and skidplates. In addition, this Toyota uses IFS plus a solid axle in the rear, with a four-link coil spring setup. Working with this suspension system are an air suspension in the rear and X-REAS sport enhancement suspension, a system that vastly improved the 4Runner's ride and reduced its body roll, an inherent weakness in previous models.

It was apparent that this SUV's interior is completely different than the one found in its predecessor. Everything from the shift lever to the vents and controls have changed. The interior had a good-looking gray and granite color scheme with brushed aluminum accents, along with leather seats and matching leather steering wheel. There were plenty of creature comforts, including dual-zone automatic air conditioning, power locks and windows, and a JBL Synthesis stereo system that included ten speakers, AM/FM/CD, rear audio controls, and a navigation system. There were so many cabin functions to control, in fact, that Toyota had to fit a lot of buttons in a relatively small space, requiring a little creativity on its part. Toyota chose to group the buttons in star-shaped patterns on the lower console.

The prior 4Runner's design had become stale in such a fast-moving, constantly changing industry. Toyota took the 4Runner to a new level with this iteration, surpassing its competition and raising the bar yet again. It is a vehicle that offers excellent off-road capability and an on-road ride and feel that puts previous 4Runners to shame. However, a bigger engine, technological advances, and a more luxurious interior come at a price, which for this test, turned out to be nearly $43,000, making it, by far the most expensive a 4Runner has ever been.

Base Price: $36,480
Price As Tested: $42,539
Engine: 4.7L DOHC V-8
Horsepower: 235 hp at 4,800 rpm
Torque: 320 lb-ft at 3,400 rpm
Suspension: Independent (front); four-link, solid axle, coil springs, air suspension (rear)
Brakes: ABS disc (front & rear)
4WD/Transmission: Full-time 4WD with Torsen-type transfer case and differential lock/five-speed ECT automatic
Wheelbase: 109.8 in
Length: 189.0 in
Width: 73.8 in
Height: 68.9 in
Curb Weight: 4,450 lb
Towing Capacity: 5,000 lb
Fuel Economy (city/highway): 15/19 mpg